Techniques & Guides · The House

This is How to Get Old Fashioned Varnished Floorboards

Yesterday Charlotte from the British Belles messaged me about how to get those fabulous sanded floorboards. So here are my tips, tricks and ‘how tos’ to planning, sanding and varnishing wooden floorboards.


The Tools

  1. Pair of garden or work gloves
  2. Eye goggles
  3. Dust mask (medium or heavy grade)
  4. Ear defenders
  5. Crowbar
  6. Claw Hammer
  7. Flat-head screwdriver
  8. Pliers
  9. Paint scraper
  10. Belt sander
  11. Lots of extra belts (40 grit)
  12. Hand sander
  13. Lots of extra pads (40 grit)
  14. Dust pan and brush
  15. Empty spray bottle (to fill with tap water)
  16. White spirit and cloth/sponge
  17. Wide, good quality, varnish brush
  18. Woodworm treatment (optional but a good idea)
  19. Varnish of your choice
Tools for sanding
Tools- belt sander, gas mask (optional), knee pads and ear defenders

The Process

First you need to pull up any carpets, this can be a messy & heavy job so get your work clothes on and put your back in to it. It’s worth checking the state of the floorboards before buying a property, I always peel back a corner when the estate agent is looking the other way. Roll up the carpet, put it out of the way and read this article ‘What Can I Do With My Old Carpet?’


Next you need to prep the floor. Use the crowbar to remove any remaining carpet grippers, these will have nails in so will be sharp, but make excellent kindling. Then pry up any large, protruding nails with your hammer and remaining staples with your screwdriver. You may need to use the pliers to pull out the staples after you’ve eased them up. You might find lots of small floorboard nails which you will need to hammer flat.

Next, tackle the gunk on the floorboards. If you’re lucky there won’t be much, and if there is a lot of gunk… some comes off easier than others! Big splats of paint can sometimes be ‘popped’ off with the paint scraper, small ones are fine to be left for the belt sander to deal with. The majority of the gunk will be around the edges. Sometimes you get a patch of what looks like thick translucent gloss, which can also be ‘popped’ off with the scraper. The really tough stuff to remove is carpet glue, if it’s thick with remnants of underlay stuck to it, scrape off as much as you can with the paint scraper, then use the hand sander. If it’s really stubborn you can use special tools like this one (pictured below). But beware, while it does works, it can damage the wood. If you’re using a dark varnish you might decide you get to a point in the gunk removal challenge and then leave it at that. Also, remember that the edges are often covered by furniture so don’t stress too much if it’s turning into a massive pain.


Now you’re ready to start sanding! Make sure the room is well ventilated and completely empty (even the lampshade will get dirty if you leave it up). I recommend using a good quality belt sander with lots of spare 40 grit belts. Some people hire a big mechanical sander which I’ve never done, but the cost can add up if you’re doing several rooms and need to hire it for an extended period. I haven’t ever felt it was worth the hassle. You’ll also need a smaller hand held sander for the edges and the corners, this is a good investment as you can do door frames and skirting boards with this too. I think the Boche Belt Sander is the best for quality vs. price, and hand sanders can vary – I’ve used several cheap ones from Aldi/Lidl and have found the head tends to melt (!!) with lots of usage – look for ‘palm’ or ‘detail’ sanders in Homebase or B&Q.

My husband and I tend to split the sanding between us, one of us will do the main floorboards with the belt sander, and the other will do the corners and the edges with the hand sander. I recommend also sanding the skirting board (with the hand sander) at the same time as it saves time. The belt sander is a bit of an endeavour, you get really messy so I kit up with work clothes, goggles, dust mash and ear defenders. I usually listen to an audiobook inside my ear defenders as you can be there a while. I like to do rooms in forward and backward sweeps. So I’ll start facing a wall, right up close, and do a line of sanding up against the skirting board, then as far as I can reach from left to right. Then I’ll turn around, with my back to the wall, and progress board by board forward, sanding each board from left to right (or right to left, whichever is easier for you) with the grain, moving perpendicular to the floorboards towards the opposite wall. When I get to the wall I’ll move sideways and do the same going backwards. For a 20m² room I have found three sweeps works, with some hard to access edges and corners; plus fiddly bits around fireplaces etc to leave for the hand sander.

It’s often a good idea to do the sanding when it’s raining, as the moisture in the air helps control the dust. You can cheat this by using a spray bottle filled with water to mist the air before you take off your mask.
You’ll need to empty the sanders more often than you’d expect, and the belts/pads will need changing often too. I try and sweep up as much dust as I can as I go along, keeping a dustbin bag in a corner to empty your sanders/dust pan into will be handy.

Prep for Varnishing

Once the boards are sanded to your liking, wipe them down with white spirit to give them a clean. You’ll probably need to wipe down the window sills, skirt boards, fireplaces and window frames too… plus the walls will probably need a brush down with a broom! (Actually, do the brush down before the wipe down!)

You may have some repair work and wood filling to do. Glue or nail any loose bits down, and apply filler if needed. The next step is to apply woodworm treatment. If you have old floorboards they probably have historic woodworm marks, it’s unlikely the woodworm is active but you don’t want to be doing all this for nothing and have to go through the whole process again. So give the boards a nice wash with woodworm treatment – it takes minutes – and leave to dry before doing the varnish.


I like to use an old fashioned wooden handled wide varnish brush for my varnishing, I’m a bit protective of it, but as long as your brush is wide and of decent quality it doesn’t really matter. Varnish is a much of a muchness, so go with the cheapest (often the own brand) in your preferred colour. Check the back for square meterage, but I’ve found 1.5lt and 2lt tins the best. Varnish is translucent so if you can’t find your perfect colour you can always layer different colours. Think about whether you’d like a warm or cool colour, then think about shade. You can always darken the floor with another layer, so tone is more important when choosing a colour. All of our floors apart from the main bedroom have had at least one shade of deepest mahogany to get a nice dark shade. The living room has had two golden brown and one deep mahogany, the spare room two deep mahogany and one golden brown and the hallway & stairs three deep mahogany. The main bedroom has had three of a slightly lighter and cooler mahogany. It’s lovely to see the different colours you can make. Leave each layer for the recommended time to dry, and you might want to finish off with a layer of clear varnish to give your floors the finishing touch.


P.s. Don’t let cats walk on just varnished floorboards!

Cat pawprints in varnish
Pawprints in the varnish

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