Removing and countersinking nails in floor

Q: I ripped up the carpet and want to refinish the oak floors. I’ve spent 12 hours pulling staples out and am stumped what to do about the nails in the floor. There are all kinds of nails in the floor. Some I pulled out, all different lengths, but with the rest (and I mean about 40) I am only managing to do damage to the floor or pull the nail heads off. Is there a better tool to use?

I’m using a hammer, pliers, and a thing that looks like a flat head screwdriver with a slit in it.

If I start hammering them down with a nail set I’m going to have an awful lot of ugly putty spots right in the middle of the floor. I was hoping to save some money doing the floors myself, I just want them to look ‘good’ but every professional I contact wants to replace every board with the slightest imperfection and make them look stunning! It’s an old house, I don’t want to pay for brand new looking floors.

A: This really is not the type of work that should be done by an inexperienced homeowner. Pull all the nails you can with the tools you have. Any others that can’t be removed, or have the heads break off, simply countersink.

There are decent wood fillers on the market that come pretty close to matching the floor and accept stain. There are also hundreds of colors in tubes that can be used afterward for any other holes or spots that were missed. Tell the floor company exactly what your expectations are and go from there. If the floor is worth saving in spite of the nail holes, there should be no problem with a company being willing to accept the job according to the visual standards you set.

Blending in nail heads?

Q imported from our old site, Face Lift Floors: We discovered nice hardwood floors underneath old tile in our kitchen. Problem is the wood was installed without using finishing nails. So, any suggestions for what to do with all these exposed nail heads? If we choose not to countersink and plug them, can we stain and varnish over them? How do you think they will take the stain/varnish?

A: So, if I am to understand you correctly, someone has used, for example, a spike, with a large head to nail from the top of the floorboards, into the subfloor. These nails need to be removed or countersunk before sanding.

Not only will they not accept stain, but present a fire/explosive hazard if a spark should ignite fine sanding dust when hit by the abrasive of the sanding machine. Depending on how many nails there are, I would say this is a typical rip out and replace job.

Follow-up Q: Attached is a close-up of 2 nails in the floor.  The floor originally had tile covering it and we tore up the tile. If only finishing nails were used! There are 400 of these nail heads in a 120 sq ft area. Do you think countersinking and plugging or filling w/ wood putty or latex would be worth the effort? 

A: Ok, that is not oak from what I can see. The fine grain looks more like either maple or pine. If it is pine, then it is probably 3/4 thick, and it appears to be tongue and groove. It should be fairly easy to countersink the nails. If this is true, then it may be worthwhile refinishing the floors. If it is maple, which I doubt, it will be difficult to sink the nails. If it is 3/4 thick, and you can stand to see these circles filled with wood filler, then go for it. If it is only 3/8 thick (doesn’t appear to be from the picture) forget it.

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Can I sand with the nails?

Q imported from our old site, Face Lift Floors: I have 85-year-old pine flooring with nails,- painted with an oil-based high gloss enamel. 2 questions – 1) Can I sand with nails in place? 2) If I want to minimize gloss can I recoat with a low gloss oil-based urethane? 

A: Usually, these nails are countersunk, just slightly below the surface before sanding and the hole is filled. You can use any sheen you like. It does not have to be gloss. In fact, the lower the sheen, the more forgiving is the look when it comes to irregularities that would be highlighted with a shiny finish. You will need at least 3 if not 4 coats of polyurethane applied to these floors.

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